-- Spring has officially sprung (though people might argue that in parts of the Midwest and Northeast) and, in a large chunk of the college football world, it has already expired.
On Saturday, a large swath of teams wrapped up spring practices with annual spring games. Over the past few years, the practice of such practices has come under fire. Teams that enter March with big depth-chart questions typically leave April with those issues unresolved. The superstars we'll talk about this fall seem to receive increasingly fewer reps in the spring, in the name of saving their tires and sidestepping injuries. Die-hards wonder aloud about teams meeting up to play actual spring games (think MLB spring training or NFL preseason) while cynics decry spring football as nothing more than a costly dog-and-pony show.
Meanwhile, amid the racket, you know who is walking around with giant smiles on their faces? The dudes who are actually on the practice field.
"I love it," Cal coach Sonny Dykes told me last week -- during my Bay Area swing through Berkeley and archrival Stanford -- having just walked off the field slapping backs and sharing laughs with the kids whom he'd just run through their 250-ish play of the spring. "Hey, what's not to love?"
Well, Coach, you have to replace Jared Goff and by my count you had six quarterbacks dressed for the practice that I attended. Oh, and you also have big holes at wide receiver, lost your top sacks guy and most of your defensive secondary ... and you're breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital.
"I never said there wasn't work to do," Dykes replied before motioning to the clear skies on a late Wednesday afternoon at revamped Memorial Stadium. "I'm just saying this is fun kind of work."
Like Cal, there are a lot of teams with a week or two remaining in spring reps. Like Stanford, a lot of teams have just parked their pads for the summer. So, where are we as of April 11? Here's what we know thus far.
And your starting QB is ...
What is it the kids say? LOL? With one week remaining in practice, Dykes says his goal is to have the Bears' QB field narrowed to a pair of leading candidates headed into summer. That sentiment was echoed in Palo Alto, where Stanford coach David Shaw has the task of filling the position vacated by Kevin Hogan. How revered was Hogan on The Farm? A pair of Stanford donors started an endowment that now designates the Stanford QB coach as the Kevin M. Hogan Quarterbacks Coach.
Tavita Pritchard, the first Hogan Coach, is, like his boss, playing the QB situation close to the vest. That has become the spring norm when it comes to quarterback battles, as opposed to long ago, when coaches seemed to feel more pressure to announce a starter coming out of the spring. This year, the nation is rampant with signal-caller showdowns and the internet is crackling with speculation, especially in situations where youngsters have stepped up with gaudy spring stats. (See: South Carolina early enrollee Brandon McIlwain splitting time Saturday with Connor Mitch, in place of inured Perry Orth.)
The real throwdowns are saved for August. At Auburn, Gus Malzahn shrugged off a trio of so-so performances from Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and juco transfer John Franklin III. Coach Gus has twice learned his lesson about anointing anyone too early. Not so long ago, as offensive coordinator, he sang the praises of a couple of QBs he said would be starting ... and overlooked some kid named Cam Newton. And one year ago, Malzahn's overselling of Johnson set the stage for a fall from grace.
King of spring ... so far: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
The Wolverines wrapped up spring practice on April 1 under Chamber of Commerce skies and in front of a colossal turnout of 60,000 fans. This after dominating the March headlines with their much ballyhooed trip to Florida and the IMG campus for spring break, a practice so divisive that it garnered live TV coverage on SportsCenter. Last week, the NCAA membership voted -- albeit narrowly -- to end that practice.
Now, we can debate the reasoning and politics of the decision to ban satellite camps, but shed no tears for Harbaugh. Give him credit for riding the satellite camp hype to the hilt. He knew all along this door would likely end up being slammed shut, and he has no doubt already figured out what his next play will be. If the NCAA closes that loophole, too, he'll move on to the next one. And it will all be broadcast via social media, mostly written by Harbaugh himself.
This is part of the gig now, especially for programs in the midst of rebuilding, and no one knows that better than Captain Comeback. He has owned the headlines throughout Signing Day and spring and will likely continue to, even when his team isn't in action, just as he did a full week after his team's practice were finished.
Just last week on our Championship Drive podcast, Houston head coach Tom Herman, a fellow social media guru, explained the strategy: "It's free advertising. It's free advertising for your program, not just to recruits, but ... to your fan base. I've got 40,000 people that feel like they've got a bit of a behind-the-curtain look at what's going on in our program on a daily basis. And that helps spark energy and enthusiasm and support throughout the Houston community and alumni and fan base ... and then these 16-, 17-year-old recruits, they live on their smart phones and they're strolling. They're on Twitter and Instagram and whatever it is, they're gonna be strolling. So, they better be seeing a U-of-H logo on something about the University of Houston dang near every time they pick up their phone. And again, it's free."
Biggest box office
There are still some ginormous programs left to hold their scrimmages. Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and Ohio State are among those scheduled for this Saturday. But any of those may be hard-pressed to top Michigan's 60,000; some of the biggest teams have already wrapped up spring to huge crowds, but none could catch the Wolverines. Last weekend, Florida State and Clemson each drew right at 50,000 fans. Florida's "Friday Night Lights" drew just over 45,000, as did Auburn on Saturday. They were followed by 43,436 at Oklahoma, 32,916 at South Carolina and 27,412 at Texas A&M.
But if intimacy is your thing ...
Stanford's never going to draw that kind of an audience for a football practice. Why? Probably because there are a bazillion other things to do on that campus, not to mention that area. Also, watching the Cardinal practice is nothing new for Stanford students. The practice fields sit in the middle of campus and drills routinely take place in an open area lined with benches and shade trees. So, on Saturday the team held its spring game at Cagan Stadium, home of Stanford soccer. It seats 1,900 and the game was featured free of charge as part of a daylong athletic showcase titled "Cardinalpalooza." The series of events included a beach volleyball tournament, men's tennis and women's water polo, not to mention face-painting and food trucks. On the official fliers posted around campus it listed the "Who" as "Anyone who likes free fun events." Don't we all?
Mr. Watson ... he's still pretty good, y'all
This year's Heisman field looks to be Deshaun Watson vs. All The Running Backs. On Saturday in Death Valley, Mr. Watson picked right up where he left off from last year's near-Heisman/near-national-title campaign. He missed his first two spring games with injuries, so in what is likely to be first and last Orange & White Game, looked nearly effortless in a 7-for-11, 141-yard, two-TD performance during which he played for both squads. His first pass of the game was a 47-yard strike to Hunter Renfrow. The biggest difference in Watson's approach now versus one year ago? "I'm trying to be a more vocal leader now," the 20-year-old said after the game. "But I still need to do some work on that, I think."
The Toledo Rockets were forced to call off Saturday's spring game when an unseasonable eight inches of snow fell on the Glass Bowl. They still made sure to get in their annual youth clinic, which they held indoors, and they also held their annual game against the Toledo Crash, an integrated wheelchair football team made up of players with disabilities. It can get a little intense. See: the photo that accompanied Toledo Football's tweet.
Old dudes rule
As one who attended a Senior Professional Baseball League game and witnessed three pulled hammies in nine innings and as one who watched retired NASCAR drivers end up in the hospital after various "legends" races, the idea of an old-timers game can give me the willies. But Saturday's inaugural alumni flag football game at South Carolina was old-school cool.
The brainchild of new head coach Will Muschamp, it was first brought to my attention by former Gamecocks player-turned-NASCAR-promoter Humpy Wheeler, 77, one of 100 former players to participate. They all received playing time, from 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers to radio play-by-play man Todd Ellis to the school's oldest living letterman, 94-year old linebacker/center Lou Sossaman, who scored a 5-yard TD complete with a two-handed spike. It was his second career touchdown. The first came shortly after his 1942 All-American season in Columbia, during his stint with the New York Yankees. No, not those Yankees. The football Yankees.
Now that we've all taken in sunshine, snow and a sip from the fountain of youth, let's move on to the other knicks and knacks of spring football in Flipping the Field. No, seriously, we need to flip the field. The grounds crew is trying to aerate this end for summer.
Danny Ford Scientific Rocket Quote of the Week: David Shaw, Stanford
On Saturday our man Ted Miller Tweeted a quote from Shaw about the NCAA's banishment of satellite camps, a topic that became a lightning rod because of its usage by Miller's predecessor, Harbaugh.
As you can imagine, that drew a bit of a response from the SEC crowd. I'll follow my man Ted's lead here and post the entire quote, as it appeared on SBNation:
"I have no opinion," Shaw said. "It's never affected us. People do them, and people don't do them. We've got great attendance at the camps we have here -- we get a lot of guys we want to come. ... But I didn't like the way that a lot of people have put this as the SEC against Jim Harbaugh. That's not what this has been about. Conference by conference, this has been going on for three-plus years, since Jim was with the 49ers. This has been a battle. As a conference, we had a long discussion three years ago about what we were going to do about satellite camps. ... I'm great with whatever college football says, because it doesn't affect us. It doesn't make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that's eligible to get into Stanford."
The Guy You Should Know About, But Probably Don't: Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
The theme of 2016 has already been declared "Running backs are back!" which made Shaw smile when I threw that out to him last week.
How stacked is Stanford? The most impressive player in the spring game was Love, a rising sophomore and explosive runner from Wake Forest, North Carolina (the Wake Forest just north of Raleigh, not the one with Demon Deacons) ... and he spent last year fourth on the depth chart! If you're a North Carolina high school track fan (and I am) then you know he's a ridiculous sprinter. On Saturday, with Christian McCaffrey sitting out to rest his legs, Love sprinted for 48 yards and two TDs on 11 carries. Said Shaw: "I'm excited for when we have both [Love and McCaffrey] on the field at the same time. One guy could play receiver while the other plays running back, they could both be in the backfield at the same time, or they could both be flexed out at receiver and have Cameron Scarlett in the backfield because of the special things those guys can do."
The Guy You Used to Know About But Forgot About But You Should Know About Again: Trevor Knight, QB, Texas A&M
The Artist Formerly Known As The Future of Oklahoma Football made his official debut as The Future Of Texas A&M Football For One Year Only in Saturday's spring game, leading the Maroon versus the White. Taking cues from new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, Knight was 25-of-36 for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns, looking as comfortable on the run as he did in the pocket. Now we'll see how well he handles a summer full of inevitably unreasonable College Station expectations.
Frank Reich Backup QB Of The Week: Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
On the flip side of Knight's move, Murray, aka the guy who transferred from A&M to Oklahoma, electrified the crowd in Norman on Saturday, dashing 25 yards on his first touch and tossing a pair of long TD passes. But unlike Knight, Murray is an underclassman and will have to sit out 2016. It's cool, though: The Sooners have this guy named Baker Mayfield.
The Team You Should Know About, But Probably Don't: UAB
The Blazers actually wrapped up spring practice nearly a month ago, way back on March 14. You can do that when your next game isn't until 2017. You might remember that the UAB program was shuttered at the end of 2014, just as they'd qualified for a bowl berth. You may also remember the emotional plea from UAB players to administrators that lit up the internet, but fell on deaf ears. Now UAB football has been revived and head coach Bill Clark and his 60 players got in a quick series of spring practices to get ready for Labor Day weekend '17. How did the team rise from the ashes of a shameful political bonfire that burned it to the ground? My man David Ching wrote this great oral history of the mess late last month.
Pro golfer Smylie Kaufman, who started alongside Jordan Spieth in Sunday's final pairing at the Masters, is an LSU Tiger. You might have noticed Kaufman was walking Augusta National in his very Geaux Tigers purple shirt. You also might have noticed the purple shirts being worn by the people in the gallery following him all day. You might not have noticed the engraving on his irons, touting fellow Bayou Bengal Leonard Fournette for the 2016 Heisman Trophy. Kaufman had a rough final round, shooting an 81 and finishing tied for 29th. Next year, he should have Les Miles show up to munch on some bent Bermuda for good luck.